US lifts suspension of food aid to refugees in Ethiopia

March 15, 2023, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visiting a USAID warehouse in Ethiopia, alongside Ethiopia’s Finance Minister, Ahmed Shide.
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The United States resumes partial food aid to refugees hosted by Ethiopia after suspending assistance in May due to allegations of ‘extensive’ theft.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is resuming food deliveries to hundreds of thousands of refugees in Ethiopia, following a four-month hiatus due to allegations of a widespread theft scheme involving supplies.

The resumption of food assistance will occur at 28 refugee camps within Ethiopia, primarily accommodating refugees from Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea. Nevertheless, broader aid efforts within Ethiopia, to help in the recovery from internal conflicts will remain paused while the United States implements additional safeguards.

According to the USAID, this come after enhanced reforms in the refugee food assistance system, which were collaboratively undertaken by the Ethiopian government and its humanitarian organizations. These changes include bolstered program monitoring, improved commodity tracking, and enhanced registration procedures. According to a related report, the USAID has also implemented various measures globally, such as biometric tests and GPS tracking, to mitigate diversion risks and ensure that food aid reaches those in need.

A USAID spokesperson said “We continue to collaborate with the Ethiopian government to enact further reforms that align with international best practices, ensuring assistance reaches the most vulnerable and needy.” –according to a report by ABC News.

In May, 2023, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) suspended all food aid to Ethiopia after alleging extensive diversion of donated food intended for millions of people in the country’s northern Tigray region. The news was characterized as possibly the largest theft of humanitarian food in history. Subsequently, the USAID also announce its stoppage of aid distribution in the country.  

It was later said an aid diversion probe revealed theft involving armed actors, government bureaucrats, as well as humanitarian workers. In the same month of June, The New Humanitarian reported senior WFP leadership in Ethiopia “resigned their positions shortly before the findings of a probe into the misappropriation of food aid were due to be made public”, suggesting extensive involvement in the scheme by WFP officials.  To date, despite recurrent news reports and statements, no official document regarding the WFP’s probe findings has been made public. In July a report by Abren considered those suffering from lack of food aid amid the forgotten investigation.

On June 19, 2023, WFP announced conditionalities on the resumption of food aid. To deal with the issue, Valerie Guarnieri, the WFP’s Assistant Executive Director for Programme and Policy Development, had said ‘the organization aims to decrease the influence of local and regional government officials in determining eligibility for food aid.’

Following the scandal, authorities in the Tigray region said they arrested 480 individuals in connection with the theft. They asserted “five entities, the Eritrean government, the Ethiopian federal government, the Tigray regional authorities, the coordinators of the displaced persons camps and humanitarian workers, all took part” __ in aid siphoning. One month after this announcement, the World Food Program cautiously restarted limited food distributions in certain areas of the northern Tigray region on July 31 while implementing what it dubbed “enhanced controls and measures”.

International food aid in Ethiopia has a long been politicized and immersed in corrupt practices, a fact the aid agencies must have known about. However, this is the first time these practices became widely publicized. In the 2022 fiscal year, USAID disbursed nearly $1.5 billion in humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia, most of it food aid.

While the most recent resumption of aid to refugees is welcome sign of improved conditions, there has yet to be an official report about said scrutiny. On the contrary, the aid agencies seem to be more troubled with the optics of the suspension. For example, they sponsored a report published on Reliefweb in July, examining Ethiopian social media public sentiment data, mostly collected on Facebook, to measure the public’s response to the suspension of aid. Its conclusion is summed up in the title; “USAID, and WFP Decision to Suspend Food Aid Blamed on Ethiopian Government”.

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